Our Campus: Dean of Arts Gage Averill is a musician at heart

Arts Dean Gage Averill is the embodiment of the faculty he oversees: the varied spectrum of post-secondary study, accepting culture and global vision -- some of the defining characteristics of the Faculty of Arts -- have all had a significant impact on Averill’s life.

Born in Connecticut, Averill spent his childhood years on a game farm in Duchess County, New York. After his parents’ divorce, Averill was enrolled in high school in the northern New York City suburb of Scarsdale. Following his graduation, Averill found himself at a crossroads.

“I had these two interests: one was environment and ecology, and the other was arts, mostly theatre and some music,” he said.

Averill felt he had to choose one or the other, and said that the latter “scared me a little bit. The periodicity of [theatre] scared me -- the cycles of productions.” So Averill chose to pursue Forestry at the University of Wisconsin.

Although Averill advanced with his career and was hired by the Wisconsin Environmental Awareness centre in 1972, he soon became disillusioned with the industry.

“I was really exposed to all that was going on at the time in feminism, gay and lesbian rights and Native American support,” Averill said. “I think I became a little frustrated with what I was doing in school, and I dropped out to become an activist, community organizer and hopefully a musician.”

Averill began playing music at rallies in a politically motivated Irish band. He firmly believed that music played a critical role in social movements, and that it had the power to change people’s lives. He also hosted a world music radio show and ran music festivals. “I was intrigued by the idea of somehow organizing my life around music,” said Averill.

This was no easy feat, however, and in the process of prioritizing music, Averill supported himself by working odd jobs -- including driving tractors and school busses -- until a back injury put him out of that line of work. Luckily, the University of Washington was experiencing a shortfall of students, and Averill was able to sign up to an ethnomusicology major. “I didn’t really know what that meant, but it seemed global, relevant to music and I could imagine it being something that could pull together a lot of my interests,” Averill said.

During his time at the University of Washington, Averill became even more involved with music. He was offered the opportunity to run the Northwest Folklife Festival, “the biggest folk, traditional, ethnic festival in the US.” In addition to this, Averill played in various musical ensembles. “For a whole decade I did hardly anything that wasn’t musical.”

The results of these 10 years were a degree in ethnomusicology and membership in the Mellon Foundation, an organization for the promotion of arts and humanities.

“They really wanted all their fellows to spend five years teaching in universities. I never really thought of myself as a teacher, but I really loved ethnomusicology, and I really thought it was something I could do for the rest of my life.” Averill began working at various universities, first at Columbia, then on the tenure track at Wesleyan. He later moved on to NYU, where he was offered a position as chair of the ethnomusicology department.

During this time, Averill had married a Canadian woman, and promised her that they would move to Canada if the opportunity presented itself. Coincidentally, the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto was searching for a new dean, and felt Averill was the right man for the job.

While serving as Dean of Music at UofT, Averill got an offer for his dream job from UBC -- Dean of Arts.

“I spent 10 years in Seattle, loved the Pacific Northwest, and really respected UBC from afar. And it was the time of the Olympics, so my family got really excited for that as well. So I came out here to interview for the job,” Averill said.

As dean, his responsibilities are varied. “I continue to do some ethnomusicology, for example, my last project was working on an international database of recordings from Haiti from the 1930s.” He writes small academic pieces such as articles in encyclopedias and chapters in books. Averill is involved in teaching courses, but works mostly as a guest lecturer, as his various other responsibilities concerned with the development and maintenance of the faculty restrain him from instructing a full course.

Averill reflects on the past with a tinge of humour. “It’s an odd history, but it has worked, and I’ve enjoyed it. It also helps me understand students who may not know exactly what they want to do in their third year of undergraduate education, so they don’t have to worry that their dean thinks they’re way behind, because it took me quite a long time to get there.”

“I would hope that [UBC is] a transformative experience for [students], that they would feel they are different people coming out of this and have matured. Bigger horizons, bigger perspectives,” said Averill. “I would hope they keep alive the kind of optimism and enthusiasm that they brought to the university as they engage with the world. I hope that they never become passive consumers of whatever’s around them: engage with it, challenge it, love it, hate it, whatever you do, just don’t sit back in a chair and watch the world go by. Keep learning and exploring.”